Fake news

Fake news, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience have all darkened our memory throughout history


Farrukh Khan Pitafi September 04, 2021
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at [email protected]

On January 12, 2018, only four days after his 76th and last birthday, British tabloid Daily Mail carried a remarkable headline about renowned physicist and pop-science legend Dr Stephen Hawking. “Has Stephen Hawking Been Replaced with a ‘Puppet’?” it asked. As if it was not enough, it went on: “Conspiracy theorists claim the REAL professor is DEAD and a ‘puppet’ has taken his place — and reveal the SIX clues that support the idea”. The story is just as intriguing. It claimed that the said conspiracy theorists believed that Dr Hawking had actually died in 1985, three years before his rise to prominence. The geniuses who came up with the story left no attribute of the man’s appearance from his teeth to his blond hair to build the case. The good doctor died in just about two months of this story. If I were a scientist whose life’s mission was to make humanity smarter and I saw such overwhelming evidence of my target audience getting dumber with every passing day perhaps I would request my medic to unplug me from life support. Please make nothing of my sentiment. I do not want to imply either that his demise was a deliberate decision or that this story had anything to do with the story. I just wanted to juxtapose the amount of crazy we witness around us with one of the finest minds known to us. No genius deserves such a dumb audience. The story is still available on the middle market newspaper’s website.

The idea that a celebrity was replaced with his/her lookalike is not new. People have a hard time dealing with the mortality of such icons. To some John F Kennedy Jr did not die in the 1999 plane crash and is in hiding. That his grandfather Joseph Kennedy was a known anti-Semite, a Nazi sympathiser and his father President JFK when young called Hitler ‘stuff of legends’ in his diary seem to have contributed to QAnon’s appropriation of the lore. Now this man in hiding is a willing accomplice of Trump and will reveal himself and replace Mike Pence as the Vice President when he takes his rightful place to drain the swamp. The story about Hawking is reminiscent of another such myth. That the Beatles star Paul McCartney died in a traffic accident in 1966 and was replaced by a copy. Why this courtesy was not extended to John Lennon is anybody’s guess. You can learn more about this myth by searching ‘Paul is dead’ on the internet.

Fake news, conspiracy theories and pseudoscience have all darkened our memory throughout history. But in this day and age, it has taken a stranger, more bizarre turn. In 2016, Oxford dictionaries declared ‘post-truth’ the international word of the year which encapsulates “the passing year in language”. There is debate about the origin of the word itself and it is apparently traced back to 1992 but it may owe a lot to the works of Nietzsche, particularly his 1873 essay Truth and Lying in an Extra-Moral Sense, “If someone hides an object behind a bush, then seeks and finds it there, that seeking and finding is not very laudable: but that is the way it is with the seeking and finding of “truth” within the rational sphere. If I define the mammal and then after examining a camel declare, “See, a mammal”, a truth is brought to light, but it is of limited value. I mean it is anthropomorphic through and through and contains not a single point that would be “true and universally valid, apart from man. The investigator into such truths is basically seeking just the metamorphosis of the world into man; he is struggling to understand the world as a human-like thing and acquires at best a feeling of assimilation.” In our own time, post-truth epitomises a lament about the vanishing objective standards meant to discern the truth.

How fitting that Nietzsche would figure into this debate because a recent book flags his work for its contribution to more than just the term. Dangerous Minds: Nietzsche, Heidegger, and the Return of the Far Right by Ronald Beiner does a great service to its readers by warning them about the perils of reading his and Heidegger’s works uncritically. Nietzsche’s critique of modern society, his desire to see a revival of slavery, his contempt for Christianity, longing for pre-Christian Europe all fit nicely into that which is going on in the west’s alt-right and neo-Nazi circles. I think I have tried to tackle this issue whenever I have discussed the works of Savitri Devi and her efforts to blend Nazism with Hinduism. It is all a desire to go back to the pre-Christian paganism of Europe by reviving the Aryan myth. This should worry you because it cements my thesis that the source of all Islamophobia, all anti-Christian sentiment and all antisemitism are the same. If truth be told all of it qualifies as antisemitism. Why? Because neo-Nazis have a problem with Jesus, who despite being Jewish in their eyes is common to Christianity and Islam. All Abrahamic faiths are the enemy here and they can be taken out one by one.

The recently concluded US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the re-centring of the terror group IS in the public discourse seems to further bolster my fears about the approaching days. ‘IS’ is the abbreviation of the Islamic State — a name the terror group seems to have chosen with a lot of deliberation as the best gift to Islam’s detractors. It will be used to revive Huntington’s propaganda against Muslims in the world.

Meanwhile, two trends from our Eastern neighbours are instructive. India seems to be trying really hard to link IS Khorasan Province with Pakistan. Sadly, its own documented links with the group and the attacks by the said body against Pakistan are making this job difficult.

Second trend. You must have seen a viral video claiming that the Taliban hanged a man to death from the US abandoned Black Hawk helicopter. In a tweet, CNN’s fact-checker Daniel Dale then shared a story by Alt-News, to its credit an Indian online fact-checker, which showed that this was not just a patent lie but was initially promoted by Indian editors and senior journalists like Sudhir Chaudhary. Hatred, intolerance and total abdication of professionalism and objectivity are making India, once a trusted voice on democracy, a laughing stock of the world. With India’s mighty troll army and its journalists also assuming the role of trolls the threat of fake news and its damage to civilisation is only likely to grow exponentially.

Published in The Express Tribune, September 4th, 2021.

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